Many learn about ancestors, U.S. Black history from family

A photo of a Black man in a dark blue suit and blue and white checkered button up underneath looking at reflection of himself on a building. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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Pew Research Center conducted this analysis to understand the rich diversity of Black people in the United States and their views of Black identity. This in-depth, robust survey explores differences among Black Americans in views of identity such as between U.S.-born Black people and Black immigrants; Black people living in different regions of the country; and between Black people of different ethnicities, political party affiliations, ages and income levels. The analysis is the latest in the Center’s series of in-depth surveys of public opinion among Black Americans (read the first, “Faith Among Black Americans”).

The online survey of 3,912 Black U.S. adults was conducted Oct. 4-17, 2021. The survey includes 1,025 Black adults on Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP) and 2,887 Black adults on Ipsos’ KnowledgePanel. Respondents on both panels are recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses.

Recruiting panelists by phone or mail ensures that nearly all U.S. Black adults have a chance of selection. This gives us confidence that any sample can represent the whole population (see our Methods 101 explainer on random sampling). Here are the questions used for the survey of Black adults, along with its responses and methodology.

The terms “Black Americans”, “Black people” and “Black adults” are used interchangeably throughout this report to refer to U.S. adults who self-identify as Black, either alone or in combination with other races or Hispanic identity.

Throughout this report, “Black, non-Hispanic” respondents are those who identify as single-race Black and say they have no Hispanic background. “Black Hispanic” respondents are those who identify as Black and say they have Hispanic background. We use the terms “Black Hispanic” and “Hispanic Black” interchangeably. “Multiracial” respondents are those who indicate two or more racial backgrounds (one of which is Black) and say they are not Hispanic.

Respondents were asked a question about how important being Black was to how they think about themselves. In this report, we use the terms “being Black” and “Blackness” interchangeably when referencing responses to this question.

In this report, “immigrant” refers to people who were not U.S. citizens at birth – in other words, those born outside the U.S., Puerto Rico or other U.S. territories to parents who were not U.S. citizens. We use the terms “immigrant” and “foreign-born” interchangeably.

Throughout this report, “Democrat and Democratic leaners” refers to respondents who say in they identify politically with the Democratic Party or are independent but lean toward the Democratic Party. “Republican and Republican leaners” refers to respondents who identify politically with the Republican Party or are independent but lean toward the Republican Party.

To create the upper-, middle- and lower-income tiers, respondents’ 2020 family incomes were adjusted for differences in purchasing power by geographic region and household size. Respondents were then placed into income tiers: “Middle income” is defined as two-thirds to double the median annual income for the entire survey sample. “Lower income” falls below that range, and “upper income” lies above it. For more information about how the income tiers were created, read the methodology.

No matter where they are from, who they are, their economic circumstances or educational backgrounds, significant majorities of Black Americans say being Black is extremely or very important to how they think about themselves, with about three-quarters (76%) overall saying so.   

Pie chart showing most Black adults say being Black is very important to how they see themselves

A significant share of Black Americans also say that when something happens to Black people in their local communities, across the nation or around the globe, it affects what happens in their own lives, highlighting a sense of connectedness. Black Americans say this even as they have diverse experiences and come from an array of backgrounds.

Even so, Black adults who say being Black is important to their sense of self are more likely than other Black adults to feel connected to other groups of Black people. They are also more likely to feel that what happens to Black people inside and outside the United States affects what happens in their own lives. These findings emerge from an extensive new survey of Black U.S. adults conducted by Pew Research Center.

A majority of non-Hispanic Black Americans (78%) say being Black is very or extremely important to how they think about themselves. This racial group is the largest among Black adults, accounting for 87% of the adult population, according to 2019 Census Bureau estimates. But among other Black Americans, roughly six-in-ten multiracial (57%) and Hispanic (58%) Black adults say this.

Black Americans also differ in key ways in their views about the importance of being Black to personal identity. While majorities of all age groups of Black people say being Black shapes how they think about themselves, younger Black Americans are less likely to say this – Black adults ages 50 and older are more likely than Black adults ages 18 to 29 to say that being Black is very or extremely important to how they think of themselves. Specifically, 76% of Black adults ages 30 to 49, 80% of those 50 to 64 and 83% of those 65 and older hold this view, while only 63% of those under 30 do.

Chart showing non-Hispanic Black adults most likely to say being Black is extremely or very important to how they see themselves

Black adults who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party are more likely than those who identify with or lean toward the Republican Party to say being Black is important to how they see themselves – 86% vs. 58%. And Black women (80%) are more likely than Black men (72%) to say being Black is important to how they see themselves.

Still, some subgroups of Black Americans are about as likely as others to say that being Black is very or extremely important to how they think about themselves. For example, U.S.-born and immigrant Black adults are about as likely to say being Black is important to how they see their identity. However, not all Black Americans feel the same about the importance of being Black to their identity – 14% say it is only somewhat important to how they see themselves while 9% say it has little or no impact on their personal identity, reflecting the diversity of views about identity among Black Americans.

Bar chart showing that about half of Black adults say their fates are strongly linked with other Black people in the U.S.

Beyond the personal importance of Blackness – that is, the importance of being Black to personal identity – many Black Americans feel connected to each other. About five-in-ten (52%) say everything or most things that happen to Black people in the United States affect what happens in their own lives, with another 30% saying some things that happen nationally to Black people have a personal impact. And 43% say all or most things that happen to Black people in their local community affect what happens in their own lives, while another 35% say only some things in their lives are affected by these events. About four-in-ten Black adults in the U.S. (41%) say they feel their fates are strongly linked to Black people around the world, with 36% indicating that some things that happen to Black people around the world affect what happens in their own lives.

The survey also asked respondents how much they have in common with different groups of Black Americans. Some 17% of Black adults say they have everything or most things in common with Black people who are immigrants. But this sense of commonality differs sharply by nativity: 14% of U.S.-born Black adults say they have everything or most things in common with Black immigrants, while 43% of Black immigrants say the same. Conversely, only about one-in-four Black immigrants (26%) say they have everything or most things in common with U.S.-born Black people, a share that rises to 56% among U.S.-born Black people themselves.

About one-third of Black Americans (34%) say they have everything or most things in common with Black people who are poor, though smaller shares say the same about Black people who are wealthy (12%). Relatively few Black Americans (14%) say they have everything or most things in common with Black people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ). However, a larger share of Black Americans (25%) say they have at least some things in common with Black people who identify as LGBTQ. All these findings highlight the diversity of the U.S. Black population and how much Black people feel connected to each other.

These are among the key findings from a recent Pew Research Center survey of 3,912 Black Americans conducted online Oct. 4-17, 2021. This report is the latest in a series of Pew Research Center studies focused on describing the rich diversity of Black people in the United States.

The nation’s Black population stood at 47 million in 2020, making up 14% of the U.S. population – up from 13% in 2000. While the vast majority of Black Americans say their racial background is Black alone (88% in 2020), growing numbers are also multiracial or Hispanic. Most were born in the U.S. and trace their roots back several generations in the country, but a growing share are immigrants (12%) or the U.S.-born children of immigrant parents (9%). Geographically, while 56% of Black Americans live in the nation’s South, the national Black population has also dispersed widely across the country.

It is this diversity – among U.S.-born Black people and Black immigrants; between Black people who live in different regions; and across different ethnicities, party affiliations, ages and income levels – that this report explores. The survey also provides a robust opportunity to examine the importance of race to Black Americans’ sense of self and their connections to other Black people.

The importance of being Black for connections with other Black people

Bar chart showing Black Americans who say being Black is important to them are more likely to feel connected to other Black people

The importance of being Black to personal identity is a significant factor in how connected Black Americans feel toward each other. Those who say that being Black is a very or extremely important part of their personal identity are more likely than those for whom Blackness is relatively less important to express a sense of common fate with Black people in their local communities (50% vs. 17%), in the United States overall (62% vs. 21%), and even around the world (48% vs. 18%).

They are also more likely to say that they have everything or most things in common with Black people who are poor (37% vs. 23%) and Black immigrants (19% vs. 9%). Even so, fewer than half of Black Americans, no matter how important Blackness is to their personal identity, say they have everything or most things in common with Black people who are poor, immigrants or LGBTQ.

The importance of Blackness for knowing family history and U.S. Black history

The new survey also explores Black Americans’ knowledge about their family histories and the history of Black people in the United States, with the importance of Blackness linked to greater knowledge. 

Bar chart showing Black adults who say being Black is important to them are more likely to learn about their ancestors from relatives

Nearly six-in-ten Black adults (57%) say their ancestors were enslaved either in the U.S. or another country, with nearly all who say so (52% of the Black adults surveyed) saying it was in the U.S., either in whole or in part. Black adults who say that being Black is a very or extremely important part of how they see themselves (61%) are more likely than those for whom being Black is less important (45%) to say that their ancestors were enslaved. In fact, Black adults for whom Blackness is very or extremely important (31%) are less likely than their counterparts (42%) to say that they are not sure if their ancestors were enslaved at all.

When it comes to learning more about their family histories, Black adults for whom Blackness is very or extremely important (81%) are more likely than those for whom Blackness is less important (59%) to have spoken to their relatives. They are about as likely to have researched their family’s history online (36% and 30%, respectively) and to have used a mail-in DNA service such as AncestryDNA or 23andMe (15% and 16%) to learn more about their ancestry.

The importance of Blackness also figures prominently into how informed Black Americans feel about U.S. Black history. Black adults who say Blackness is a significant part of their personal identity are more likely than those for whom Blackness is less important to say that they feel very or extremely informed about U.S. Black history (57% vs. 29%). Overall, about half of Black Americans say they feel very or extremely informed about the history of Black people in the United States.

Among Black adults who feel at least a little informed about U.S. Black history, the sources of their knowledge also differ by the importance of Blackness to personal identity. Nearly half of Black adults for whom Blackness is very or extremely important (48%) say they learned about Black history from their families and friends, making them more likely to say so than Black adults for whom Blackness is less important (30%). Similarly, those who say being Black is important to their identity are more likely than those who did not say this to have learned about Black history from nearly every source they were asked about, be it media (33% vs. 22%), the internet (30% vs. 18%) or college, if they attended (26% vs. 14%). The only source for which both groups were about equally likely to say they learned about Black history was their K-12 schools (24% and 21%, respectively).

Overall, among Black Americans who feel at least a little informed about U.S. Black history, 43% say they learned about it from their relatives and friends, 30% say they learned about it from the media, 27% from the internet, and 24% from college (if they attended) and 23% from K-12 school.

Younger Black people are less likely to speak to relatives about ancestors

Black adults under 30 years old differ significantly from older Black adults in their views on the importance of Blackness to their personal identity. However, Black adults also differ by age in how they pursue knowledge of family history, how informed they feel about U.S. Black history, and their sense of connectedness to other Black people.

Chart showing younger Black adults less likely than their elders to feel informed about U.S. Black history

Black adults under 30 (50%) are less likely than those 65 and older (64%) to say their ancestors were enslaved. In fact, 40% of Black adults under 30 say that they are not sure whether their ancestors were enslaved. Black adults in the youngest age group (59%) are less likely than the oldest (87%) to have spoken to their relatives about family history or to have used a mail-in DNA service to learn about their ancestors (11% vs. 21%). They are only slightly less likely to have conducted research on their families online (26% vs. 39%).

Black adults under 30 have the lowest share who say they feel very or extremely informed about the history of Black people in the United States (40%), compared with 60% of Black adults 65 and older and about half each of Black adults 50 to 64 (53%) and 30 to 49 (51%). In fact, Black adults under 30 are more likely than those 50 and older to say they feel a little or not at all informed about Black history. While Black adults are generally most likely to cite family and friends as their source for learning about Black history, the share under 30 (38%) who also cite the internet as a source of information is higher than the shares ages 50 to 64 (22%) and 65 and older (14%) who say this.

These age differences persist in the sense of connectedness that Black Americans have with other Black people. Black adults under 30 are less likely than those 65 and older to say that everything or most things that happen to Black people in the United States will affect their own lives. This youngest group is also less likely than the oldest to have this sense of common fate with Black people in their local community. One exception to this pattern occurs when Black adults were asked how much they had in common with Black people who identify as LGBTQ. Black adults under 30 (21%) were considerably more likely than those 65 and older (10%) to say they have everything or most things in common with Black people who identify as LGBTQ.

Black Americans differ by party on measures of identity and connection

Black Democrats and Republicans differ on how important Blackness is to their personal identities. However, there are also partisan gaps when it comes to their connectedness to other Black people.1

Bar chart showing Black Democrats more likely than Republicans to say what happens to other Black people in the U.S. will affect their own lives

Black Democrats and those who lean to the Democratic Party are more likely than Black Republicans and Republican leaners to say that everything or most things that happen to Black people in the United States (57% vs. 39%) and their local communities (46% vs. 30%) affect what happens in their own lives. However, Black Republicans (24%) are more likely than Black Democrats (14%) to say that they have everything or most things in common with Black people who are LGBTQ. They are also more likely than Black Democrats to say they have everything or most things in common with Black people who are wealthy (25% vs. 11%).

When it comes to knowledge of family and racial histories, Black Democrats and Republicans do not differ. Democrats (59%) are just as likely as Republicans (54%) to know that their ancestors were enslaved. Nearly 80% of Black adults from both partisan coalitions say they have spoken to their relatives about their family history. Similar shares have also researched their family histories online and used mail-in DNA services.

Black Democrats are also not significantly more likely than Black Republicans to say they feel very or extremely informed about U.S. Black history (53% vs. 45%). And among those who feel at least a little informed about U.S. Black history, Democrats and Republicans are about equally likely to say they learned it from family and friends (45% vs. 38%).

Place is a key part of Black Americans’ personal identities

The majority of Black adults who live in the United States were born there, but an increasing portion of the population is comprised of immigrants. Of those immigrants, nearly 90% were born in the Caribbean or Africa. Regardless of their region of birth, 58% of Black adults say the country they were born in is very or extremely important to how they think about themselves. A smaller share say the same about the places where they grew up (46%).

Bar chart showing half of Black adults say where they currently live is an important part of their identity

Black adults also feel strongly about their current communities. About half of Black adults (52%) say that where they currently live is very or extremely important to how they think about themselves. And when it comes to the quality of their neighborhoods, 76% of Black adults rate them as at least good places to live, including 41% who say the quality of their community is very good or excellent.

Still, Black adults say there are concerning issues in the communities they live in. When asked in an open-ended question to list the issue that was most important in their neighborhoods, nearly one-in-five Black adults listed issues related to violence or crime (17%). Smaller shares listed other points of concern such as economic issues like poverty and homelessness (11%), housing (7%), COVID-19 and public health (6%), or infrastructure issues such as the availability of public transportation and the conditions of roads (5%).

While nearly one-in-five Black Americans (17%) say that individual people like themselves should be responsible for solving these problems, they are most likely to say that local community leaders should address these issues (48%). Smaller shares say the U.S. Congress (12%), the U.S. president (8%) or civil rights organizations (2%) bear responsibility.